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Water Woes: Industry hurt if water is restricted

POSTED: January 3, 2008 5:02 a.m.
GAINESVILLE - As Gainesville officials are looking for ways to scrimp and save the water supply, their eyes are becoming fixed on local industries that use millions of gallons of it every month.

But for many local industries, water means money.

In the next week, Gainesville expects state officials to mandate more cutbacks in water usage, but the decision of what to cut will be left to the local authorities.

"We think that they're going to just tell us, ‘You need to reduce your water usage by another X percent,'" Kelly Randall, director of Gainesville's public utilities department, said. "And basically, let us be the bad guy to figure out how to get to that percent."

Public utilities' officials have said they are looking to cut water supply to some of the industries in the area, but Randall hopes the utilities department can work with local industries rather than have to arbitrarily decide who gets less water.

"You don't know anything about their industry really," Randall said. "You just say, ‘OK, you've got to reduce it by 10 percent' - we don't know if they can or can't."

Horace Gee, Gainesville's environmental services administrator, has advised local companies to start thinking about conservation options.

The poultry industry is one of the biggest drains on the city's water supply, and one of the biggest parts of its economy. But soft drink makers and tractor manufacturers also use a lot of the municipal water supply.

"Most of the industries have said, ‘Hey, we're not going really be able to cut back without actually reducing our work force,'" Randall said.

Fieldale Farms, a Baldwin-based poultry company, is one of the city's biggest water consumers, and the company is already feeling the pressure.

Tom Hensley, executive vice president for Fieldale Farms, said Fieldale administrators meet every Tuesday to discuss issues the company faces.

"Obviously the No. 1 issue is water," Hensley said.

The Fieldale plant in Murrayville already recycles about 25 percent of its water, Hensley said. Fieldale is currently installing recycling equipment in its Cornelia plant.

Hensley said Fieldale tries to save water in other ways. The company has stopped washing its trucks, and areas of the plant that were cleaned with a hose only months ago are cleaned with a broom now.

"We just conserve every place that we can just like everyone else," Hensley said.

If the Murrayville plant loses more than 10 percent of its water supply, the result could cripple the North Georgia-based company.

"We really don't have the luxury of being able to cut back our water consumption a whole lot," Hensley said.

Fieldale uses four to five gallons of water for each chicken it processes, and the Murrayville plant processes about 600,000 chickens weekly.

"It just requires a lot of water," Hensley said.

The Murrayville plant used an average of 31 million gallons of water per month last year, according to data from Gainesville's public utility department. And even though the plant has some wells, Hensley said Fieldale still needs the water from the city of Gainesville, and could not survive without it.

"USDA mandates water usage inside a chicken plant, and we absolutely can't get by with less than 90 percent of what we're using," Hensley said.

And reducing the number of chickens it produces would be a difficult task for the company, because Fieldale chickens' lives are planned so meticulously. If chickens are on the farm for too long, then they will be too big to sell, Hensley said.

"All of our customers demand a specific size chicken," Hensley said. "You can't bring in a 10-pound chicken and sell it. Not to our customers."

Hensley said Fieldale still has to consider what to do if less water is available to the company.

"If that plant gets shut down, 1600 people are going to be out of a job," Hensley said. "That means their rent won't get paid; their mortgage won't get paid; their car payment won't get paid."

Hensley said maybe it is possible for other industries to get by on less water, but not poultry.

But even if water isn't being used to wash chickens, it is still a big part of local industry.

Shasta Beverages needs the water to make soft drinks. Kings Delight needs the water to make food.

Kubota Manufacturing needs the water to paint tractors.

The Kubota Manufacturing plant in Gainesville, which employs around 900 people, is one of two Kubota plants outside of Japan. In 2006, Kubota used an average of about 1.4 million gallons of water per month. Nearly all of that water is used when the tractors are painted, Brian Arnold, director of manufacturing for the Gainesville plant, said.

As Lanier lowers, Kubota administrators are looking for ways to reduce their water consumption.

"We've got some ideas, but have not implemented any change yet," Arnold said. "But that's something that we're aggressively pursuing now."

Arnold said the company is trying to find chemicals for its paint pre-treatment system that would require less water than the current ones. Also, Kubota is investigating a water-recycling system, but the system could be a costly investment, Arnold said.

"It would require some new equipment to do that, if it's even possible," Arnold said.

"Hopefully we can come up with more ways to try to conserve more," Arnold said.

The plant assembles about 1,250 tractors every week, Arnold said, but if the city cuts Kubota's water consumption it would also be cutting Kubota's revenue.

"Our production would be hurt," Arnold said. "Which would mean less products and less revenue - not good for our business at all."

But water is also business for the city's public utilities department.

Although nearly 90 percent of Gainesville's water subscribers are residential, local industry is one of the public utilities' biggest water customers. Twenty-five percent of the department's water revenue comes from general industry.

Cutting the water supply is bad for business - especially when they have to cut the supply to their best customers.

If they don't cut back somewhere though, there may be no business at all.

"The situation is pretty desperate," Randall said.




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